The Multi-Party Elections In Serbia In 1990 (I)

It is the 30th anniversary of the first post-WWII democratic elections in Serbia and the rest of the ex-Yugoslavia.

My aim in this article is to elaborate on the feature of the multi-party elections in Serbia in 1990 and to give an answer to the crucial question why did Slobodan Miloshevic with his SPS party win? After the investigation of the case we found that critical reasons for Miloshevic’s/SPS absolute electoral parliamentary and presidential victory in 1990 have been: 1) The countryside and small urban settlements voted for SPS due to the informative blockade; 2) Old population voted for SPS; 3) All minorities, except Hungarians, voted for SPS as a lesser nationalistic option than SPO; 4) The biggest minority – Albanians (10%) boycotted the elections; 5) All Kosovo Serbs voted for SPS; and 6) The whole electoral procedure was under SPS control.

Nature of Political System in Serbia in the early 1990s

Many foreign political scientists argue that the political (and electoral) system in Serbia during the process of Yugoslavia’s dissolution could be classified as „authoritarian“. This system is characterized by the limited political pluralism, aggressive populist rhetoric, the concentration of power by the party leader and clique around him and their ability to manipulate the electorate.[i] Some researchers outline the continuity of such personal and unpredictable nature of single-man political power in Serbia during the whole twentieth century and ground this system to the traditional Balkan „pater familias“ (father of the family) model of the ruling rural large family society („zadruga“)[ii].

The tendencies to bring the familial power of Slobodan Miloshevic’s family over the state were transparent in Serbia’s political system in the early 1990s. The leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) S. Miloshevic and his wife Mirjana Markovic, the leader of Yugoslav United Left party, ultimately supervised the state political life, army, police and economy. Their kinship expanded to mass media contributing to the control and manipulation of the information channels and civil initiatives, which lost а great degree of independence and critical voice to the regime. In such a system the personal service to the party leader and relationships with his family guaranteed success and prosperity[iii]. As a result, Serbia failed to make the political leap from totalitarianism to pluralism and left behind the successful democratic transition in Eastern Europe[iv].

Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic left shakes hands with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic right at the beginning of the Summit in Rome in this Feb 17 1996

Serbia’s state politics heavily relied on the nationalistic rhetoric that merged together political unity and national claims[v]. This theoretical Ernest Gellner’s framework has had its practical interpretations by both SPS leadership, on the one hand, and some leaders of oppositional parties such as the Serbian Radical Party lead by Vojislav Sheshelj and movements such as Serbian Revival Movement lead by Vuk Drashkovic, on the other. They claimed that ethnographic borders should be expanded to the national-state borders or another way around that the state should enlarge its borders in order to include both the territories settled by dispersed Serbs and lands that historically belonged to the „national“ state[vi]. By combining these two ethnic and historic rights, Serbian nationalists (like many others in their own national cases) required the creation of United Serbia from the Krayina region in Croatia (according to ethnic rights) to Kosovo in Serbia (according to historic rights). In this way, both political blocks in position and opposition gained popularity among Serbian citizens but lost political and financial support from the western democracies. Nationalistic rhetoric by oppositional Serbian Radical Party and Serbian Revival Movement was even more radical than S. Miloshevic’s political discourse and thus discredited any other oppositional units such as Democratic Party, Serbian Liberal Party and other political forces that called for democratic transition in Serbia.  Western European countries and the USA maintained distance to the events in March 1991 and did not provide any support to democratic parties which succeeded to organize a mass demonstration against S. Miloshevic’s growing political regime but failed to defeat it.

Ex-Yugoslav Republics in 1990
Ex-Yugoslav Republics in 1990

By developing discourse of “national mobilization” and patriotism to fight for national interests, Miloshevic succeeded to gain political power in 1987−1989 and maintain it for the whole decade from 1990 to 2000[vii]. As the chapter below will suggest Miloshevic effectively manipulated certain “democratic” mechanisms of the pluralistic political-electoral system in Serbia and at the same time established his own absolute power by gaining major support from the Serbian population. The oppositional political forces experienced a very difficult task to contest Miloshevic’s iconic image and obtain support for political-social reform and civic society values in Serbia. Thus, nationalistic rhetoric was explored by oppositional parties as well to appeal to the electorate and win support.

Multi-Party System: Limited Development of Democracy

In 1990 Yugoslavia followed the model of political transition from a one-party regime to a multi-party democratic system that was similar to the other Central and Eastern European countries. For the first time after the Second World War, both presidential and parliamentary elections were organized in a democratic way when newly established political parties and politicians could participate in the elections. The adopted Law on Political Organizations (July 19th, 1990) allowed setting up various political associations. In Serbia, many political forces demanded to draft a new democratic constitution and develop an open democratic society. Political agenda of majority political organizations openly rejected communist and socialist regimes and supported human rights, democracy, and market economy. However, the results of the parliamentary and presidential elections in other republics of Yugoslavia made a negative impact on democratic forces in Serbia and to a certain extent reinforced the position of the former Communist Party. During the period from May till November 1990, elections were held in four Republics of Yugoslavia, namely, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia. By applying nationalistic rhetoric newly elected parliaments and presidents of these four republics expressed their claims for independent ethnic states and separation from Yugoslavia. The rhetoric of ethnic nationalism became developed into the driving force for success in the multi-party system to gain and maintain political power.

In Serbia, the elections were scheduled in December when the broad spectrum of the most influential political forces from the former Communist party to the democratic bloc and even new Royalist bloc could participate. By observing the electorate behavior of nationalistic parties in other four republics of Yugoslavia, Serbia’s former Communist Party (i.e., League of Communists of Serbia), renamed to Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and led by Slobodan Miloshevic, mobilized financial and information resources and adopted aggressive nationalistic rhetoric in the electoral campaign. SPS addressed the danger of growing nationalism in other Yugoslav republics and positioned itself as the savior of Serbian national interests.[viii] Being the successor of the Communist Party, SPS appropriated all rights and material wealth, political infrastructure and organizational networks of the former Communist Party. Though a significant number of the membership was lost, SPS had mostly professional cadre in comparison to other parties.

Maintaining the political power, SPS succeeded to adopt the legal acts to help their party in winning the parliamentary and presidential elections in December. The law on plurality (majoritarian) voting system allowed any party to participate in the elections but de facto restricted them in getting the majority of seats in the parliament. Oppositely to the proportional representation system that provides the close match between the percentages of votes and seats, the plurality voting system advantaged the party which collected the single majority votes by allowing this party to obtain the absolute majority of seats in the parliament. As a result, on December 9th elections SPS got the majority seats in the parliament.

The oppositional parties in Serbia, however, left behind of SPS in terms of political and organizational infrastructure. Regardless on these weaknesses, two main oppositional organizations, namely Democratic Party (Demokratska stranka – DS) lead by Prof. Dragoljub Micunovic, and the royalist Serbian Revival Movement (Srpski pokret obnove – SPO) led by at that time charismatic populist leader – the writer Vuk Drashkovic, had the potential staff and supporters to participate in the political life of Serbia.

Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo Field on Vidovdan June 28th, 1989
Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo Field on Vidovdan June 28th, 1989

Democratic Party (DS) was formed by Belgrade intellectuals (many of them former political dissidents who protested against the last Yugoslav Constitution of 1974 according to which Serbia was divided into three territorial-political units (Vojvodina, Kosovo and the rest of Serbia). The precursor of DS was the Committee for Human Protection illegally worked in Titoist Yugoslavia in the 1970s and 1980s as in fact the only opposition organization to totalitarian regime run by Josip Broz Tito. On November 11th, 1989 a group of 13 intellectuals publicly proclaimed the organizational establishment of DS that became the first opposition party in Serbia. The most distinguished signatories of the act that created DS have been later its leaders: Dr. Dragoljub Micunovic, Dr. Kosta Chavoshki, Dr. Vojislav Koshtunica, and Dr. Zoran Djindjic. In early 1990, the party was united to the assembly of many small parties and liberal movements. Even the leadership was composed of the board council, where several leaders in consensus made the decisions[ix]. The main focus of the party program was concentrated on a clear program of economic and political reforms rather than nationalism and exclusive Serbian national traditions. The political agenda of the Democratic Party was based on traditional European liberalism of civic society. They saw future Yugoslavia as democratic federation composed by all of the nations who by their own will expressed common state and democratic political systems. Regardless of very sharp critics of communism, the party had an unclear national program and weak populist leadership contrary to SPO.

Serbian Parliament inside
Serbian Parliament inside

The other influential oppositional party, namely, the Serbian Revival Movement (SPO), focused primarily its political program on solving Serbian national question according to the dominant framework of German Romanticism from the 19th century that claimed the model of one nation – one state[x]. The leader of the party, the writer Vuk Drashkovic, previously was affiliated to the nationalistic Serbian National Defense organization (Srpska narodna obnova – SNO) and proposed to form the special Serbian paramilitary forces and fight for „Greater Serbia“ in order to protect all the territories settled by Serbs. This first of all addressed Serbs in Kosovo allowing questioning large-scale autonomy of Kosovo within Serbia and even proposing to cancel such its status. The new Drashkovic’s party – SPO – based its program on promises to introduce democracy and rule of law in Serbia, a revival of genuine cultural traditions of the Serbs and restoration of the powerful influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church as it used to have in the pre-WWII times. Due to these populist ideas, the movement rapidly got huge mass popularity and expected to win the upcoming parliamentary elections and maybe presidential ones as well. For this purpose, SPO organized an extensive electoral campaign by organizing the oppositional meetings across and outside Serbia. Economic issues were secondary than political, however, clearly expressed suggesting the tendencies to develop a market economy, private possession over the tools of production and private business initiatives. Oppositely to the other big political organizations, SPO had a very specific strategy in its political-national program, notably, to restore the monarchy by crowning the Yugoslav Prince Alexander II Karadjordjevic who has been the legal successor of pre-war Yugoslav royal dynasty of Serbian origin. Before the December elections, SPO had about 700.000 supporters and 500 offices in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia.

The other political organizations were significantly smaller, without broad social and strong financial support existing on the margin of political life.

To be continued

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.


[i] Juan Linz, Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation – Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, p. 38.

[ii] For more details about “pater familias” model and its political structure in Balkans see in [Владимир Дворниковић, Карактерологија Југословена, Београд: Просвета, 2000 (reprint from 1939)].

[iii] More about personal-party relationships and economic success in Serbia in the early 1990s see in  [Tim Judah, The Serbs. History, Myth & Destruction of Yugoslavia, New Haven-London: Yale University Press, 1997, pp. 259–278].

[iv] For more details see in [Sabrina P. Ramet, Social Currents in Eastern Europe – The Sources and Meaning of the Great Transformation, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991].

[v] Ernest Gellner, Nations et nationalisme, Paris: Editions Payot, 1989, p. 13.

[vi] Vladislav B. Sotirović, “Emigration, Refugees and Ethnic Cleansing in Yugoslavia 1991–2001 in the Context of Transforming Ethnographical Borders into National-State Borders” in Dalia Kuizinienė (ed.), Beginnings and Ends of Emigration. Life Without Borders in the Contemporary World, Kaunas: Versus Aureus, 2005, pp. 94–95.

[vii] Robert Thomas, The Politics of Serbia in the 1990s, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 7.

[viii] The homogenization of Serbian opinion by Slobodan Miloshevic has begun on April 24th, 1987 when he as the Chairman of the League of Communists of Serbia visited Kosovo Serbs at Kosovo Polje (at the outskirts of Prishtina) – a mythical place for the Serbs where they lost state-national independence to the Ottomans on June 28th, 1389 [Радован Самарџић, Сима М. Ћирковић, Олга Зиројевић, Радмила Тричковић, Душан Т. Батаковић, Веселин Ђуретић, Коста Чавошки, Атанасије Јевтић, Косово и Метохија у српској историји, Београд: Српска књижевна задруга, 1989, pp. 39–40]. After listening, grievances of the rallied local Serbs upon long-time discrimination and torture by ethnic Albanians he was the first Serbian official after 1945 to promise them the state’s protection, respect for their human and national rights and equal status within the multiethnic province of Kosovo. His speech at Kosovo Polje was used by TV Belgrade to start creating his charismatic personal cult which had to be proven by mass meetings (“happenings of the people”) in biggest Serbia’s towns from 1987 to 1989 culminating with one million gathered Serbs at a pan-national meeting on 600 anniversary of the Kosovo battle on June 28th, 1989 at Gazimestan. Both Serbian Orthodox Church and Milošević expressed readiness to fight, according to Miloshevic, for protection of human rights as it was done 600 years earlier when on Kosovo Polje Serbian Prince Lazar was defending Christian Europe from Muslim infidels [Slobodan Milošević, „Kosovo i sloga“, NIN, Beograd, 1989-07-02].

[ix] Jelena Guskova, Istorija jugoslovenske krize, I, Beograd: IGA“M“, 2003, p. 124.

[x] For more information, see [Vladislav B. Sotirović, Lingvistički model definisanja srpske nacije Vuka Stefanovića Karadžića i projekat Ilije Garašanina o stvaranju lingvistički određene države Srba, Vilnjus: Štamparija Univerziteta u Vilnjusu, 2006].

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  1. Arhikles Salvador

    To make clear thing: firstly in April 1990, fascist Franjo Tudjman was elected with his fascist HDZ in Croatia and then in December communist Slobodan Milosevic with his SPS in Serbia as reaction to the electoral results in Croatia.

  2. @Salvador

    You are right indeed. Plus, Alija Izetbegovic with his SDA after Bosnian elections formed the Government what, as well as, had direct impact on Serbian electorate to support Miloshevich

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